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Articles / Canada's History /2015 - 2016

Canada's History

(first published in Canada's History Dec-Jan, 2014-15)

In an office at the history department of the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB, there is a table that sometimes gets a little more attention than most of the other furniture. Guest lecturers use it as a speaking podium. Visitors sometimes just want to see it or sit at it.

The table, fashioned from plain construction lumber, has no particular merit as furniture.  But once it belonged to Donald Creighton, who worked at it for more than forty years to write his renowned histories: The Empire of The St. Lawrence, the Macdonald biographies, The Road to Confederation. In a country where few historians are read or remembered beyond the close of their careers, the Creighton table is a tangible link to the scholar most Canadian historians would still acknowledge as the most imposing, the most influential, and the best-remembered professional historian this country has seen.

Creighton died in 1979, and today the table’s custodian is UNB history professor Donald Wright, who has been working on a biography of Creighton. Several years ago Wright visited the family cottage on Ontario’s Lake Muskoka, where Creighton often worked. “The Creighton family bought a cottage lot in 1917,” Wright told me recently, paying about $1000 for waterfront property. “There was no road and no electricity then. In those days they usually came by boat, and boats delivered the canned goods they ordered from Eaton’s.”

In 1933, Creighton’s wife Luella “had a writing hut built for him, right down on the shore, with a wondrous view over the lake. And from the scrap lumber, she had the builders knock together a table. Creighton wrote parts of all his books on that table. He created the Laurentian thesis while looking at the Laurentian Shield, while sitting on the Laurentian Shield, in fact.” The Laurentian thesis, the central insight that Creighton pursued all his life, proposed that Canada was no artificial construct. It was, argued Creighton, an economic and political system running east to west, first along the St Lawrence river drainage system, later extended west by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and eventually extending from British Columbia to Montreal and east across the Atlantic to Canada’s markets in Britain. 

There was some urgency to Wright’s visit to Creighton’s Laurentian workplace. The Creighton family was selling the cottage, and the new buyers, having paid considerably more than $1000, were about to demolish everything to build a Muskoka mansion. They had no interest in its former occupant. “I said, can’t we take the writing hut and reconstruct it at the archives in Ottawa? -- the way Tom Thomson’s hut was saved at the McMichael Gallery,” Wright recalls. “But we laughed – no one would have cared.”

Only after returning home did Wright think, I should have asked for the table! The Creightons proved agreeable, but Wright soon discovered that no granting agency was likely to support the moving costs, so he paid for the two men and a truck who saved the table from the wreckers. Then his own mother in London, Ont., rented a van and delivered it to him in Fredericton.

The Creighton table is small, but Wright thinks that suited Creighton’s habits. “He hated clutter. He used unlined paper and he wrote with a fountain pen. He did not discuss secondary sources in his narrative, only in the endnotes, so he did not need to have piles of books at hand. All he needed was the notes he kept on index cards, all organized and cross referenced.”

Wright, who has examined Donald Creighton’s papers, describes the manuscripts as “seamless – just a word or two changed every few pages, and only occasionally a paragraph crossed out and a new start made. Once he found his zone, he just wrote.” Even in the midst of a Muskoka cottage summer, he was a disciplined writer. Creighton’s daughter, the writer Cynthia Flood, told Wright that as kids they knew without being told that their father was not to be disturbed when the door of his writing hut was closed.

In the year of the John A. Macdonald bicentenary, Creighton’s heroic, visionary Macdonald remains Canada’s image of the first prime minister, but Wright knows that much of Creighton’s version of Canadian history has been superseded. Still, in his biography of Creighton -- some of it also written on the Creighton table -- Wright is determined to give the historian his due. “He said there would never be a biography of him and if there was, it would be some tedious doctoral dissertation.  I have tried to give him the book he is due, not a monograph.”

The great historian still has readers. His son Philip Creighton told Wright that when the movers came for the table, they wondered why it was worth such trouble. Philip Creighton explained that his father had once been famous, had been Donald Creighton. “Creighton?” cried the mover. “Get out! I have all his books!”

It was the mover who insisted that “provenance” had to be established for this precious artifact. There by the shore of Lake Muskoka, they flipped the table over. Philip Creighton signed and dated a declaration that this was indeed the writing desk of Donald Creighton. And then the table set off along the great river to its new home.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2015

(first published in Canada's History, Feb-Mar 2015)

I was reading recently about a violent Islamic insurgency smashing down established borders, creating a refugee crisis among Christian minorities, and forcing the Western powers to intervene, despite the failure of recent military interventions in the Middle East. Would Canada be a loyal member of the alliance, ready to send its forces into harm’s way again?

That was the situation in September 2014, when Canada agreed to contribute fighter-bombers to the west’s campaign against the Sunni insurgents who boasted they would create a medieval caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

But in fact I was reading about September 1922.

The insurgents of 1922 were the forces of Kemal Ataturk, who was about to found the republic of Turkey and abolish the Ottoman sultanate that had dominated the Middle East for 600 years. Ataturk had just driven a Greek army out of most of western Turkey. He next intended to restore Turkish control of Constantinople, then occupied by the western allies. Britain in particular was determined to hold the straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea as a “neutral” – that is, western-occupied – zone.

In September 1922 British prime minister David Lloyd George declared it was a vital imperial and worldwide interest to “keep the Turk out of Europe.” Calling on its allies to reinforce its garrison at a town called Chanak (today Çanakkale) on the straits, Britain denounced Turkish atrocities against Christians. (Indeed, Turkey and Greece did undertake a vast exiling of Christians from Turkey and Muslims from Greece at this time, with great suffering on both sides.)  

When the Turkish armies reached Chanak, Ataturk, who had been an Ottoman general at Gallipoli in 1915, would probably have been strengthened by another battle against western occupiers. But few in the west wanted this fight. Instead, the government of Lloyd George fell. He was replaced by New Brunswick-born Bonar Law, the only Canadian ever to be prime minister of Great Britain.

Soon the Treaty of Lausanne ratified the modern boundaries of Turkey and swept away the western occupation of the straits. The historian Margaret MacMillan observes in Paris 1919 that Lausanne is the only one of the postwar treaties still largely in effect. Ataturk’s Turkey is a Nato member and the most stable and democratic of Islamic societies in the region. Shipping in the straits has never ceased.

But before the stand-down, Winston Churchill, Lloyd George’s colonial minister, asked Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to “dispatch a contingent” to Chanak for “empire solidarity.” Before the telegrams were received, he made the request public in a press release.

In 1922 Canada said no. (So did most of the other dominions.) Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and his new advisor on external affairs, Oscar Skelton, were determined that Canadian foreign policy and the use of Canadian forces could no longer be determined by the British Foreign Office. Learning of Churchill’s request from press reports, King merely replied he would have to consult parliament.  Since the Canadian parliament was not sitting – and King controlled it anyway -- King really meant No. Soon Churchill was out of office, and neither King nor parliament had to decide anything about Chanak.

Canada is a small country, necessarily bound to work in alliances we do not control. Can Canada decline participating when armed intervention does not seem wise or in our interest? Or is it more important to be a team player? These are permanent dilemmas of Canadian foreign policy, in 2014 as in 1922.

ISIS and Chanak are worlds apart and no one could make policy for 2014 based on what happened in 1922. History does not repeat itself. But it rhymes, someone said. The Western confidence that dispatching a contingent is good for the Middle East’s problems has been complicating Canada’s foreign policy choices for a long time.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2015

(first published in Canada's History, Oct-Nov 2015)

I did not rush into Edmund Metatawabin’s much admired book Up Ghost River. It is a residential schools memoir. It was not going to be lazy summer reading.

In the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2007, the Canadian government and several churches accepted liability for the abuse heaped upon tens of thousands of aboriginal children in residential schools. In partial compensation, a fund of $5 billion was established. The survivors used some to fund the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring together those who suffered in and those who controlled the schools.

In June 2015, commission head Murray Sinclair set out the massive body of evidence demonstrating that the many decades of residential schooling, designed to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” had been a cultural genocide. A prominent Canadian pundit and historian promptly declared “it would be very hard to find anyone who believes Canadians are the kind of people who engage in cultural genocide.” Truth and reconciliation both still seemed very far away.

That’s when I took up Edmund Metatawabin’s book. He’s about my age, though his family were Cree trappers at Fort Albany, Ont., on James Bay, living traditionally, getting poorer as the animals were thinned out. Everyone in authority said that for future prosperity, their only hope was schooling. On his reserve the school was only a few minutes away, but it was residential. For eight years, starting at the age of seven, young Edmund saw his parents and family only at Christmas and summer break. Inside the fences lay an alien world, unilingually English, under the thumb of white teachers with vast arbitrary powers.

He wasn’t even Edmund anymore; they called him Number Four. Whippings and beatings began the first day. Eventually teachers would make him eat vomit and strap him to an electro-shock chair in the guise of punishment. Sexual abuse was constant. The only white person who offered Number Four kindness was grooming him for rape.

Metatawabin shows the residential schools would have been a complete and total failure even if the people running them had been saintly. A century of the schooling that was supposed to be help them made native Canadians steadily more destitute, less skilled, and with fewer opportunities either in the white man’s world or their own.  All they had learned was “as natives, we’re always at the bottom.” 

After the concentration-camp early chapters, Up Ghost River actually becomes inspirational. Despite the schools’ massive failure rates, Metatawabin would earn two degrees. He beat despair, alienation, and addiction. He has been married forty-five years – to a white woman -- raised a large family, and became a teacher, leader, and entrepreneur at Fort Albany.

Successes like Metatawabin’s still inspire policy makers to promote more, better education for First Nations. But his take on history convinced me the issue is not education. It is power.

In his long struggle to make something of himself, Metatawabin got little of lasting value from white churches, white schools, white therapists, white officials, even when they meant well. The therapy that has helped, the jobs that have worked out, the programs that have done good in his communities – they have all been indigenous-run and tradition-centred.

Our ideas for aboriginal education still usually mean integrating aboriginal kids into our schools. But if the power relationship is unchanged, the failure is predictable.

If we Canadians started to take the treaties seriously, First Nations would have the resources to run their own affairs, including their own educational programs. Edmund Metatawabin is unique, but there are lots like him waiting to seize that chance.

If we could give up the power.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2015

(first published in Canada's History, April-May 2016)

Did a million Canadian women lose the right to vote in 1917?

A hundred years ago, in January 1916, Manitoba became the first province to recognize women’s right to vote. By April 1917, Ontario and all the western provinces had followed Manitoba’s lead. But it is usually reported that the first women able to vote in federal elections were the women then serving in Canada’s armed forces, perhaps 2000 women in total. The federal parliament gave them the vote in August 1917. In September 1917, Parliament extended the right to vote in federal elections to wives, widows, mothers, sisters, and daughters of serving soldiers. Not until 1918, more than two years after Manitoba, would Canada recognized a broad right of women’s suffrage.

But in 1917, as wives and daughters of soldiers got the vote, no less an authority than former prime minister Wilfrid Laurier was declaring that a million women who already had the federal vote were losing it.

Did this happen? To sort out what was going on requires a walk through some odd corners of Canadian federalism.

In 1867, it had been agreed that, for the time being, the voting rules that existed in the provinces of the new Dominion of Canada would be used for federal elections as well. Anyone who could vote provincially could vote federally.

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald disliked that system. In 1885 his Elections Act empowered the federal government to set its own rules. Wilfrid Laurier was a backbencher in the opposition then, and he protested; letting the provinces set federal voting requirements was part of the confederation bargain, he said. After Laurier became prime minister, he abolished Macdonald’s election rules. Provincial rules would once more apply in federal elections.

This was still the law of the land in 1916 and 1917. When Manitoba and the four other provinces recognized women’s right to vote, that is, women in each of those provinces got not just the provincial vote, but the federal vote as well. Or so Laurier, once more in opposition, declared.

“In five provinces, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, women now have the franchise” for federal elections, Laurier told the Commons in September 1917, “but under this legislation, the women of those provinces, with the exception of those who happen to be relatives of men who have enlisted, are deprived of the franchise.” The government’s new bill “disenfranchises about a million women who live between the Ottawa River and the Pacific coast,” said another Liberal MP.

Or did it? In 1917 Robert Borden’s Conservative government desperately wanted to keep the vote away from anyone who might not support the war effort – including women. Western Canadian women, many of them farmers’ wives and many of them immigrants from Central Europe, were doubly or triply suspect. In reply to Laurier, Prime Minister Borden flatly denied that any women had ever had the federal vote.

The government waved a legal opinion. The federal law that let provinces determine who voted spoke of “persons” who could vote. “Persons” did not mean “women,” the prime minister said. For that reason, his lawyers now advised that the provincial right to vote had never entitled women to the federal vote.

This was thin legal ice. But no court would get to rule. Borden’s government passed its bill giving votes only to women with family members in uniform. The right to vote that a million western women may have had – but never got to exercise – vanished. Soon everyone forgot the whole debate ever happened.

Disenfranchising Canadians?  It’s a bad idea with a long history.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2016

(first published in Canada's History, Aug-Sept 2016)

When Winston Churchill came to the Newfoundland outport of Ship Harbour, it was in the darkest days of the Second World War. He did not have much time for the local people. For the seventy-fifth anniversary this August, things are going to be different in Ship Harbour.

In August 1941, at Ship Harbour, Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, aboard the battleship Prince of Wales, met American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, aboard the cruiser Augusta. It was their first summit meeting, four days of intense meetings with their most senior advisors aboard the anchored ships. Pearl Harbour was still four months away, and the United States still at peace. Churchill had come hoping to draw the United States into the war. Roosevelt hoped at least to shift American public opinion away from isolationism. The Ship Harbour summit fulfilled neither hope, and at first it was regarded as a failure.

Yet Roosevelt and Churchill had created the Atlantic Charter, a statement of the principles both countries stood for: the self-determination of nations, free trade and economic cooperation, and a permanent system of general security. As more nations joined the western alliance in the war against fascism, the Atlantic Charter became the blueprint for the postwar world, the germ of the United Nations Charter.

Peter Russell, the Toronto political scientist and advisor to governments, calls the Ship Harbour summit “a story of how the alliance of the two big democracies was truly bonded on the waters of Placentia Bay. ‘We are bonded now,’ Elliott Roosevelt said his father said to him as they walked back from the church service on the Prince of Wales. It was not just calculated foreign policy. It was a personal trust and understanding between the two leaders.  It is fair to say that the beginning of effective resistance to Hitler was in Placentia Bay.”

The memory of the Atlantic Charter summit at Ship Harbour has endured. In 1991, the fiftieth anniversary, Parks Canada erected a handsome monument overlooking the anchorage. For the seventy-fifth anniversary this August, Newfoundland will host another Atlantic Charter conference. Prominent Newfoundlanders, international scholars, a Churchill descendant, and Roosevelt biographer Conrad Black will gather in St. John’s and Ship Harbour to recall the great events of 1941.

In 1941 the Atlantic Charter summit was held in deepest secrecy. When the great ships appeared, some locals feared the worst: just eight months earlier, the arrival of another naval force had meant the bulldozing of nearby Argentia and the displacement of 400 people for a naval base. Local people learned nothing about Roosevelt and Churchill. Only Churchill went ashore, and only to stretch his legs in a deserted cove.   

This year, the people of Ship Harbour, population about 200, and the Atlantic Charter Foundation they established have made themselves central to the commemorations. This August, their Foundation will host a garden party, a church service, fireworks, a barbecue, and a fishing derby, all wrapped up with a Newfoundland kitchen party – “not actually in a kitchen,” says Tom O’Keefe, one of the Foundation’s local advisors.

And the Placentia Cultural Arts Centre will launch Newfoundland playwright Agnes Walsh’s new Atlantic Charter play -- for the conference delegates, but mostly for the community. It’s not about Roosevelt and Churchill; it’s about local people and what they did while the great men conferred offshore.

The “formal conference” about the Atlantic Charter summit will be impressive.  But if you are in the area in August, the play and Ship Harbour’s kitchen party might be the really hot tickets.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2016

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